Tray Wellington a banjo player from Western North Carolina will play at the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival. Credit: Rob Laughter

This year’s Berkeley Bluegrass Festival at Freight & Salvage shines the spotlight on groups — notably women and people of color — who influenced the bluegrass sound some 80 years ago, but who have been largely left out of bluegrass festivals for decades.  

“This year, more than past years, we’re digging deeper into where the music came from, and the exciting places it’s going,” said Peter Williams, the Freight artistic director. 

Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, April 21-23, Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. Tickets available online or at 510-644-2020. 

Bluegrass emerged in the 1940s when Bill Monroe, a mandolinist and singer from Kentucky, “fused Scots-Irish ballads with old-time fiddle tunes, Baptist church singing styles, rural blues and a smattering of Western swing,” said Laurie Lewis. Lewis is a local bluegrass legend, and also the artistic director for the festival. 

Monroe, known as the Father of Bluegrass, was deeply influenced by Black music and musicians. Blues and gospel are both clearly heard in Monroe’s music, and he learned from and played with Arnold Shultz, a Black fiddler and guitar player also from Kentucky. 

Another music group from the early days of bluegrass is the Carter Family, whose songs have been a key part of the repertoire. They worked closely with Leslie Riddle, a Black guitarist and singer, to gather and remember folk songs. Riddle also shared his vast repertoire of blues and gospel with the family.

Another influence from Black Americans is the banjo. One of the primary instruments in bluegrass, it is clearly related to instruments from West Africa, and was originally created by Black people enslaved in the Caribbean and then brought to the U.S.

Laurie Lewis has twice been named Female Vocalist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Credit: Irene Young

Women also played a big — but under-recognized — role in early bluegrass music. Monroe’s band was called the Blue Grass Boys, even though some of the band’s first recordings included Sally Ann Forrester on accordion. The band also included bassist Bessie Lee Mauldin for many years. This happened as well with Gloria Belle in Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys.  Women were sometimes seen as a part of a family band, often in the role as a singer and/rhythm player, but rarely as a featured instrumentalist. 

Starting in the 1960s, bluegrass festivals began popping up all over the country, featuring headliners such as Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs. Festival stages and the bluegrass zeitgeist did not reflect the diversity of influences on the music.

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were key figures who helped pave the way for more women to take the stage in bluegrass, though the genre is still heavily skewed towards male musicians. 

However, the Bay Area bluegrass community has long been an incubator for innovation and inclusivity. It gave rise to influential artists such as Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick, who toured nationally in The Good Ol’ Persons, and also to David Grisman, who pushed the genre into new directions with his “Dawg Music” that infused bluegrass with jazz. Today, the Bay Area bluegrass scene is a thriving community with organizations such as the California Bluegrass Association, the Northern California Bluegrass Society, and Bluegrass Pride. 

2023 festival

This year’s Berkeley Bluegrass Festival at Freight & Salvage focuses on being “Big Tent Bluegrass,” Lewis said.  “From Mr. Sun to Dry Branch Fire Squad and everything in between.” 

Tray Wellington, a rising star on the banjo and a trailblazer for Black musicians in modern bluegrass, makes his first appearance at the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, as will the all-women supergroup Sister Sadie. The festival also features women’s music icon Laura Love performing songs from her 2007 NeGrass album. 

Joe Troop, founder of the Grammy-winning group Che Apalache, will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Larry Bellorín for a seamless fusion of bluegrass and traditional Venezuelan music. Laurie Lewis and her phenomenal band the Right Hands and Peter Rowan round out the festival lineup.  

The weekend also includes two packed days of workshops, a singalong, and an exclusive interview with bluegrass icon Peter Rowan, who played with Bill Monroe himself.

“Education is a key part of the Freight’s mission,” said Freight Education Associate Leah Wollenberg, “and it’s an important part of our bluegrass community as well. We’re thrilled that so many festival performers and community partners are willing to share their knowledge this year.”

Offerings range from classic bluegrass fare like the “Drive the Five” banjo workshop with Gena Britt to less common subjects, like “Bluegrass Fiddle: What to Do When You’re Not Soloing” with Brandon Godman, and “Venezuelan Strings: the Gabán” with Larry & Joe.  

There are also opportunities for people who don’t play an instrument. Black Banjo Reclamation Project will lead a workshop called “Repairing White Racism in Bluegrass Music: Exploring the Black Cultural Roots of Bluegrass,” a chance to hear often-neglected perspectives from Black banjo culture bearers on the roots of the banjo and Black music in America. 

Peter Rowan and host of KPFA’s Pig In A Pen, Allegra Thompson, will draw connections between bluegrass lyricists and nature poets from Du Fu to Wendall Berry in their Bluegrass Passion of the Land interview. Laurie Lewis will lead “The Great Bluegrass Singalong.” 

One of the Freight’s goals is to elevate new or often unheard voices in traditional music, strengthening its musical community. Social change and genre innovation have been intrinsic to bluegrass for its entire history. The Freight has always been in the vanguard of organizations promoting traditional music and, through events such as the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, continues its mission to preserve and support traditional music for all.